As a lifelong Canadian prairie dweller (and glad to be so), I tend to think of human congregations in ascending — or perhaps it’s descending — order: from farm to hamlet, hamlet to village, village to town and city, and so on up to metropolis or megalopolis.
Not everyone thinks this way, for example our friends Babs and Fredy Egli in Buchs, Switzerland. Buchs has a population of about 30,000, which in Saskatchewan would make it a fair-sized city, but to the Eglis it’s a mere town, although within the town limits of Buchs lies the medieval Stadt — the city — of Werdenberg.
Werdenberg is the oldest timber-frame settlement in Switzerland, comprised of a few winding streets among ancient wooden houses where a few hundred souls live, perhaps as many as inhabited the village of Laird, Sask., where I grew up. And Werdenberg is a city for one reason: it has a castle. The much larger community of Buchs does not, and therefore cannot be a Stadt. No castle, no city.
When Larraine and I strolled down Werdenberg’s cobblestone streets, we could hardly resist singing the childhood ditty, There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile . . . surely it was in one of these uneven structures that the old man lived with his crooked cat and mouse. These houses are built side-by-side, with common interior walls, and most of them have ground floors that formerly were barns or stables, and only in recent years have been refurbished as human living spaces. The ownership of Werdenberg houses is strictly governed by legislation. Typically, they are passed down to succeeding generations of families who have occupied them since medieval times, and the law prescribes the upkeep of any dwellings left without heirs to inherit them.
On our visit to the venerable city, I was particularly struck by two of the buildings. One had an upper-storey window in a room where the bodies of the dead were traditionally laid for a time before their burial. The window was surrounded by painted red flames, being the outlet through which the soul travelled and having to endure purgatorial fires on its passage.
The other house, as if to complement the first, had a poem on its front, inscribed in old Germanic lettering: Diss hus ist min und doch nicht min, wer vorher da, s’was ouch nit sin, Wer nach mir kumt muoss och hinus; sag lieber fruend wem ist diss hus?
Translated, it means roughly: This house is mine and yet not mine, someone else was here before, whose it wasn’t either. Whoever comes after me will have to leave it too; so tell me, dear friend, whose house is it?
And this world we all live in together, which is as small as it’s large — whose house is it? Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed. . . . That settlement of Bethlehem, more ancient by far than Werdenberg, was hardly the size of my village of Laird, yet the prophet Micah sang of it, “Thou, Bethlehem, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth he whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” King David’s city had only a barn for a castle and a manger for a throne, and the prince who was born there once upon a time keeps being born again today — forever today — in the humblest habitations of this small planet we call, for now, home.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards. He has taught writing classes for the University of Saskatchewan Certificate of Art and Design (USCAD) and the Western Development Museum.